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From The Margins: Revisiting The Concept Of `Marginalized Women’

By Shalu Nigam

03 September, 2014

A few days back, I attended a seminar on `Violence Against Marginalized Women and Gender Justice’. The seminar discussed about issues relating to various subgroups within the category `women’ like widows, dalit women, tribal women, refugee women, so on and so forth. The deliberations made me think as to who constitute `marginalized women’ when `women’ being women are marginalized in the patriarchal world. Women as a `category’ or as a `group’ in comparison to `men’ have been relegated to margins due to systemic and structural discrimination within the society. Women, irrespective of their hierarchical status, ranking or background, face violence within public and private spaces, they are being doubly discriminated and denied of the basic rights and are often oppressed by norms, culture and customs in a male dominated world where capitalism and globalization commodifies and objectifies women. Considering this aspect, the term `marginalized women’ needs rethinking as to which of the subgroup of category `women’ may be classified as `marginalized women’ and whether these marginalized women can use marginality as a site to contest for their rights and entitlements.

Relooking at the Term `Marginalized’

Marginalization is often described as a social process where people are relegated to the fringes or `margins’ of the society. It is defined as a process, in which individuals or communities are socially excluded, systematically blocked from, or are denied access to participate in social and political processes which are basic to integrate with the society. Marginalization inhibits a person, a group, a section or a community to enjoy rights, privileges, opportunities and resources that are normally available to members of a society. It may therefore be considered as a discordant relationship between those who marginalize as compared to those who are being marginalized. Then possibly the term `marginalized’ may be used synonymously with the term `oppressed’ in comparison to an `oppressor’ as Paolo Freire used in his famous `Pedagogy of Oppressed’, `proletariat’ as used by Karl Marx, `subaltern’ used by Gramsci, `powerless’ as elaborated by Michel Foucault, or exploited, vulnerable, discriminated, disadvantaged, subjugated, socially excluded, alienated or downtrodden as used elsewhere in the available literature.

However, there are theorists have warned that some of these words cannot be equated with each other. For example, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is of the view that . . . “subaltern is not just a classy word for “oppressed”, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie. . . . In terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now, who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern… Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don't need the word ‘subaltern’ . . . They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern”1.

Women are `Marginalized’ in the World Dominated by Men

The term `woman’ has been defined as a process of becoming one rather than been born with as elaborated by Simone de Beauvoir2. Beauvoir refers to Hegel's master-slave dialectic as analogous, in many respects, to the relationship of man and woman. This proposition treats woman as the `Other’ in relation to man. The `Other’ has thus gained significance and needs to be examined. Therefore, on the basis of her analysis the entire category called `women’ or the `Other’ is marginalized because of structural and systemic discrimination prevalent in the society. In ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, Wollstonecraft3 writes against a conception of women and femininity as defined primarily by the ability to arouse male sexual desire. She elucidates that this conceptualization, “deprive us of souls and insinuate that we are beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the sense of man…..” She further argued, “They (women) may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent”. Similarly, in India, Tarabai Shinde in 19th century in her famous published work Stri Purush Tulna explained that women everywhere are oppressed4. Therefore, historically, it may be said that women are oppressed and marginalized in almost every society and more specifically in patriarchal society like India women’s marginalized is being continued till today.

This may be observed from the analysis of facts, figures and the data available reflected in the Human Development Index, crime against women or otherwise available, on the basis of which it may be generalized that social and political structures constrain women’s choices and limit their ability to participate in decision making, thus socially exclude them at both micro and macro level. Omvedt5 noted that, “When political independence came to nations in Africa and Asia, the ruling elite became the managers of the system of surplus accumulation and attempted to utilise it for development in their own societies. The main mechanisms for surplus extraction were by this time prices (low prices both for crops grown by peasant producers and for natural resources) and increasing state claims to ownership of common property which had once been under the control of village communities”. She further explained that exploitation was masked by the ideology of development and industrialization and in the process poor, small and marginal farmers, peasants and women were marginalized.

The Report on the Committee on the Status of Women in India6 in 1974, a document solely devoted the `question of women’ in independent India, observed that the `large masses’ of women were yet to realize their rights on the ground though the Constitution of India proclaimed when it guarantees the right to equality on the basis of sex. The report observed that the promise of gender equality remained on paper and failed to reach a large number of women. It further held that though many women contributed to the freedom movement but that notion quickly evaporated and in the independent India the `women’s question’ remains ignored7. The committee further noted, “All indicators of participation, attitudes and impact come up with the same result…though women do not numerically constitute a minority, they are beginning to acquire the features of minority community by the three recognized dimensions ….economic situation…social position and political power. If this trend is allowed to continue the large masses of women in India may well emerge as the only surviving minority continuously exposed to injustice”8. And this became a reality today where a large majority of women, are being denied the basic social, economic and political rights and those who got it are struggling to maintain their acquired positions.

This is mainly because `women’ as a group or category has been overlooked by the State while framing and implementing policies. Though policies and schemes for women were framed as a part of five year plans or otherwise, however, the main intent of these programmes is to grant `welfare’ to women where services are being doled out. The policy makers over the years have failed to see women as equal participants or partners to change, growth and development of the country. The authors of the ‘Towards Equality’ Report while commenting on the role of state in marginalization of women observed, “”Women” were positioned – marginally and precariously – with the confines of a narrowly conceived social welfare sector. Marginally, because women had to jostle for space and resources within this poorly endowed sector with many other groups of citizens; precariously because the entirety of social context and situation of women, the issues thrown up and the successes achieved during the social reform and the freedom movement, the unfinished task and an overall follow up – all were missing in the social welfare lens, the cognitive map of policy makers. Even more serious, the social welfare sector did not concern itself with the legal rights and entitlements”9.

The `tryst with destiny’ visualized at the time of independence has failed to benefit women and to reach the half of the masses who remained invisible and have been denied of their dues. The development paradigm adopted later also relied on the discourse which is exclusively Western while ignoring the needs of local women or follow people oriented approach. This has been highlighted by Shiva and Mies while referring to the context of the Chipko Movement where they argued that women activists, “expect nothing from `development’ or from the money economy. They want to preserve their autonomous control over their subsistence base, their common property resources: the land, water, forest and hills”10. The sex equality that is guaranteed within the Constitution of India therefore could not be achieved as this social document failed to create a revolution or achieve a new social order in Independent India even though it propagates for democratic governance and is accompanied by the spirit of modernization and development. Rather, the so called development pushed the `Western’ agenda of development which is alien to large masses and it took away their basic freedom to Jal, Jangal and Zameen (water, land and forests).

The Social Complexities that further Accentuate Inequalities

Thus, the unequal position of men and women that is being maintained and further intensified in Independent India is due to faulty approach in implementing laws and policies. Also, this sex based inequality cannot in reality be differentiated from variety of social, economic and cultural inequalities that existed in Indian society for generations. This is because inequalities inherent in our traditional social structure based on caste, community, religion and class have a significant influence on status of women. The multifaceted, multi-layered and diverse social situations that existed within the country require a different kind of intervention to lead to social transformation that benefits all sections of population; however this fact has been neglected for decades.

Further, modernization, industrialization, development, urbanization and globalization in the independent India, have affected women from different background in differing degrees resulting in in-egalitarian distribution of opportunities and resources, and non-uniform pattern of social change not only among men and women, but also among `women’ from different social ranking, hierarchies and backgrounds. In fact, modern development processes resulted in deepening disparities further subjugating `women’ as a larger category, and also different subgroups within this category. The structural economic changes, expanding markets, the cutting technology, wider avenues for education and steps taken to bring `development’, all have combined to produce mixed and uneven results. On the one hand, these have created space for participation of women in social, economic and political processes and created wealth and opportunities for a section of population, yet on the other hand these have also resulted in deepening poverty, intensifying social crisis and enhancing vulnerabilities for large spheres of society. Currently, the situation is that the changing social processes have resulted in removal of certain restrictions in women’s life yet; these have also created centers of resistance to the desired change in women’s status.

Inequalities that are Relegating Women to Margins

Thus, at one level there is inequality that already persisted between men and women, intensified and on the other hand, within the category called `women’ inequality sharpened in terms of status, power, rights, privileges and obligations. The latter happened because `women’ as a category is not homogenous. This divergence emanates from their relative position within the social strata and their proneness to vulnerability as per their location within the social context. Besides, caste, religion, geographical location or class various principles operate to differentiate the women’s status like the availability of finances, resources, employment, education, access to opportunities, availability of support and network, marital status and so on. Within this multi layered framework and complex social structure there are women who are `more’ vulnerable than others. For example, a woman labourer from a schedule caste background may enjoy a certain degree of autonomy but may not enjoy a high status in the wider social setting. Similarly, a widow woman who belongs to a wealthy upper caste family is relegated to inferior status and may be denied the basic necessities along with the right to reside within the joint family’s household.

Therefore, the institutional setting in which a woman is located acquires significance besides factors like her social position or ranking in the hierarchical set up as generally held. Another situation highlighted by Omvedt11 in her paper pointed out to a particular situation where a number of the `abandoned women’ which include divorced and deserted women from all castes and religious communities were increasing in the villages. She explains the manner in which these women were marginalized within their own familial set up by those who constitute the part of their family, as “They (women) are normally sent back to their parental villages where they have to support themselves and their children by working as labourers without rights in either the house or land of their natal family. Their situation reflects the social condition of women within the Hindu patriarchal family system, as essentially landless, homeless and without support”.

State’s Perception of Marginality

The state as a major actor plays a decisive role in creating environment that defines, determines and shapes marginality as discussed above. Through its policies, laws, schemes and programmes, the state establishes the fact as to who falls under the category of marginalized. For example, by defining the poverty line the state determines as to who would constitute a marginalized person. Therefore, discourse around the issue of whether `a woman who owns two saris may fall under the category of poor person, or should a man earning Rs 25/ per day is empowered enough to feed a family of four’, the state often plays a major role in planning for `welfare’ of marginal sections. However, often, these discourses fail to take into account the reality of marginalized population. Based on the trickle down approach, this discourse overlook the reality of millions of people living in the situation of grave deprivation, hunger, diseases and non availability of not only basic necessities but also dignity and equity.

This approach of binary social relation of the Us-and-Them, of the Provider and the Beneficiary, of the Expert and the Needy, the Giver to the Recipient has neither helped the State and nor it has benefitted the masses of people, the subaltern or the marginalized. The reason being that the State failed to consider the marginalized as active participants in the decisions making process and neglected their role as a partner in the way towards progress of the entire nation. The bureaucratic approach which remained in the free India as a remnant of colonial legacy polarized the situation based on the concept of classes versus masses, the rulers versus the ruled, the powerful versus the powerless and created the situation where disparities intensified in spite of existence of constitutional provisions, policies and programmes. The language of domination persisted in the governance framework throughout the decades which created a divide and further marginalized those who are vulnerable.

This language of domination is so authoritative that it hardly allowed the language of resistance to raise it concerns in its own voice. As bell hook explained the dangers in this type of speech about the `Others’ lies in the fact that it is no different than the language of oppression. She explains the manner in which this language of oppression works, “[There is] no need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk”. This language talks `about the marginalization as such but it does not talk to those who are oppressed or talk with powerless’ and that is a grave situation. The concern is that the experiences of those on margins this way remains invisible, their way of seeing the reality remains unseen and their consciousness of the structure of daily lives is ignored.

Marginality as a Space for Contestation, Resistance, Negotiation and Struggle

Traditionally, the state is obliged to empower the marginalized and the socially excluded, but at the same time it does not want these groups to act as a partner in bringing about social transformation and it talks the language of domination. Therefore, true change can only be possible when those who are at the margins participate in the social and political processes to create reform. Marginalized, therefore, need to use the site of oppression as a space of resistance, struggle and negotiation12. The reason being that marginality is a site that nourishes the capacity marginalized of the to resist and helps to create and imagine new and alternative worlds. More specifically, women may play a significant role is using the space of marginality to contest for their rights and negotiate their claims.

While commenting to using marginality as a site for struggle, Omvedt in her paper noted, “In view of the marginalisation and super-exploitation of women's labour linked to the system, it is perhaps not surprising that women seeking their own empowerment should become forces supporting a new kind of development”13. Also elsewhere hooks while supporting this argument noted that once women identifies that they are being marginalized by the oppressive structures there is a possibility that this site can be used to create alternative world. She opined, “I am located in the margin. I make a definite distinction between that marginality that is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as a site of resistance – as location of radical openness and possibility. This site of resistance is continually formed in that segregated culture of opposition that is our critical response to domination. We come to this space through suffering and pain, through struggle. We know struggle to be that which pleasures, delights and fulfills desires. We are transformed, individually, collectively, as we make radical creative space which affirms and sustains our subjectivity, which gives us a new location from which to articulate our sense of the world”14.


While concluding it may be said that `women’ as a category has been marginalized for ages in almost all parts of the globe. However, in the independent India, in spite of the Constitutional guarantees of equality between sexes and affirmative action clause which enables the State to formulate laws and policies in favour of women, the ground realities tell a different story. Though, education, modernization, industrialization and globalization, all have made certain impact on the situation and the status of women, however the distribution of such change remains uneven resulting in widening inequalities between men and women and within the different subgroups within the category called `women’. Further, even within the same subgroup within the `women’ category the institutional location of women determines their position in terms of marginalization besides social ranking of hierarchical order in a multilayered society. Therefore, while defining the `marginalized women’ various factors need to be considered including the opportunities, resources, finances, employment, marital status etc. The state has done little in the free India to acknowledge women’s role as equal partners to the growth and social transformation. The language of domination prevails when State attempted to formulate the policies and programmes for women. The women therefore need to locate the space for contest and are forced to use the site of marginality to resist and create a new world.

Shalu Nigam is currently working with the Centre for Women Development Studies. She has written several books and papers on gender, governance and law issues. She may be contacted at [email protected]

1 De Kock, Leon. "Interview With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. 23(3) 1992: 29-47 http://ariel.synergiesprairies.ca/ariel/index.php/ariel/article/viewFile/2505/2458

2 Simon de Beauvoir (1949) The Second Sex, Vintage 2010

3 Wollstonecraft Mary (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Penguin 2006

4 Hanlon R (1994) A Comparison between Men and Women: Tara Bai Shinde and the Critique of Gender Relations in Colonial India, OUP

5 Omvedt Gail (undated) Green Earth, Women’s Power, Human Liberation: Women in Peasant Movement in India

6 CSWI (1974) Towards Equality Report on the Committee on the Status of Women in India, Government of India

7 Sharma Kumud and CP Sujaya (2012) Introducing Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India in Women’s Equality and the Republic: Landmarks in Indian story Ed Vina Mazumdar, CWDS and Pearsons

8 Towards Equality Report para 7.98

9 Sharma Kumud and CP Sujaya (2012) Introducing Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India in Women’s Equality and the Republic: Landmarks in Indian story Ed Vina Mazumdar, CWDS and Pearsons p xxv

10 Mies Maria and Vandana Shiva (1993) Ecofeminism, Zed Publications,

11Omvedt Gail (undated) Green Earth, Women’s Power, Human Liberation: Women in Peasant Movement in India

12 bell hooks (1990) Marginality as a site of Resistance http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/~mma/teaching/MS80/readings/hooks.pdf

13 Omvedt Gail (undated) Green Earth, Women’s Power, Human Liberation: Women in Peasant Movement in India


14 bell hooks (1989) Choosing the Margin as a space for radical openness, from Yearnings: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics



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